MOUNT UNION – There comes a sobering moment in most of our lives, I guess, where you realize your body is slowing down and you really can’t do all the things you might want.
I found my nearly 70-year-old mind coming to terms with this reckoning lately as I prepared to climb the Thousand Steps Trail, a heavy staircase of rough stone slabs wedged in place 86 years ago. by quarry miners as a means of getting to work on the face of Jacks Mountain in Huntingdon County.
I had read that it was a daunting climb as the stones are rough, steep and require unsightly steps. You climb 843 feet in elevation in less than half a mile. It was compared to a 90 minute workout on a StairMaster fitness machine.
There are over 1,000 of these stages – various stories I’ve read put the total between 1,037 and 1,042 – by far a tough course. I was intimidated and nervous. My knees haven’t been satisfied with anything but walking in a straight line for a few years and even getting into bed is no longer effortless.
But this historic and unique trail, now the hallmark of the 84-mile Stepping Stone Trail on State Game Lands 112, has been on my bucket list for nearly two decades. The more I read about his story, the more I felt drawn to this difficult journey.
From 1936 until the late 1950s, workers at nearby Mount Union Quarry used it to access the scree slopes of gannister rock used to make heat-resistant silica refractory bricks widely used in the heyday of steelworks, glassworks and other industries. Mount Union, whose three brick factories once employed 2,000 people, still has signs calling itself “Brick Town USA.”
Imagine walking about 3 miles from town to the base of Jacks Mountain and doing that climb just to start a 12 hour work day breaking and loading rocks. Six days a week.
In a way, I felt that walking up the steps was a way of honoring the sacrifice of the workers – many of whom were immigrants thrown into a harsh and remote land – who did what it took to provide for their families.
And the photos I had seen of the views at the top were amazing. The mountain looks towards the mountain ridges and down to Jacks Narrows where the Juniata River is pinched between two mountains. Here, modes of transportation were diverted across the gap, from Frankstown Indian Road to the Pennsylvania Canal to the Pennsylvania Railroad and present-day Route 22.
From top to bottom, the 2,321-foot Jacks Mountain has the highest elevation gain of any mountain in Pennsylvania.
More and more people are looking for the Thousand Steps Trail. Trail count cameras showed that more than 42,000 people had at least started the trail in 2020, more than double the previous pre-pandemic year.
So I was determined to do the trail. I intentionally went there on my own so I could stop as often as my knees dictated and not be a drag on anyone else. I packed my two trekking poles to shift some of the muscular burden onto my arms.
On a glorious fall morning in early October, with mist clinging to the bottom of the river, I began to climb the limestone steps that had worn so many work boots.
Someone marked every 100 steps on the way. I was initially annoyed by the intrusion, but came to see them as necessary milestones of accomplishment and subtle pleas to keep going.
My internal hype about the task at hand as a glove was met with reality when the first person I met was 46-year-old Jason Graney, who was happily climbing the steps with his dog. A resident of nearby Mount Union, he said he climbs the steps several times a week to keep fit.
His father had worked in one of Mount Union’s brick factories. Although he never had to pound rocks with 16-pound sledgehammers on the mountain, Graney can relate to his father’s co-workers who did.
“I’ve often thought, boy, what would it be like to climb that mountain and have to break rocks all day, just to get them to the brickyard. It’s a crazy thing,” he said.
A few hundred steps and pauses later, Zach Irwin, 38, came to breathe on the slope. An Army veteran stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was visiting his mother in Mount Union, who had urged him to experience the Thousand Steps. Irwin didn’t seem to be overflowing with maternal affection.
I couldn’t help but feel slightly vindicated halfway through when two women came up the steps, stopped for a moment but started back down.
But then here comes Jessica Tenley, a 35-year-old mother with her six children, ages 3 to 15, in tow. It was his seventh annual family hike up the mountain to see the fall foliage and views.
The first time she was pregnant and brought along her one-year-old daughter, whom she hoisted up the tallest steps.
I laughed to myself, impressed and in awe of their commitment to coming out at a sublime time of year.
As I began to descend the slope one red step at a time, my thighs already burning, I felt my own gratitude that I could still go to inspiring places that I want. Blocked or not.
• Ad Crable is a LNL | Outdoor Writer LancasterOnline. Email him at [email protected]